Lekol Bakpoh, a health worker at Biara, Gokana Local Government Area of Rivers State, has lived in constant apprehension about the state of his health and those of his family members for several years.
Things, however, took a turn for the worse in March when Bright, his 10-year-old son, woke up abruptly in the middle of the night with a frightening asthma attack.
That night, Bright struggled to fill his lungs with air as he started coughing. His beleaguered windpipe made sharp whistling sounds as he inhaled. The kid held on to his tiny chest in futile attempt to douse the pain that tore through it every time he tried to breathe, his father narrated.
Mr. Bakpoh said he administered some drugs that stabilised his son’s breathing and reduced the coughing after about an hour of torture that seemed like eternity. But his apprehension soared after that dreadful experience.
That was four years before the United Nations Environmental Programme, UNEP, in a report designated his homeland one of the most polluted inhabited areas in the world
Sitting on a coffee table in his living room in April 2017, he told PREMIUM TIMES that he feared he might have to deal with a worse medical emergency sooner than later. He said he recently observed the water they fetched from a nearby borehole tastes bitter.
“Water is supposed to be tasteless, right?” he asked.
Before this reporter could respond, he told one of his daughters to fetch a cup of water from a container in another room and urged me to confirm for myself.
After reluctantly taking a sip, the water left a clear bitter after-taste in my mouth. The expression on my face must have told him all he needed to hear.
“You see, that is the water we drink here. Only God knows what we are drinking,” he said.
THE UNEP REPORT
After several years of bloody agitation against multinational oil companies, particularly Shell, over pollution of Ogoniland, the Nigerian government in 2011 invited UNEP to do an assessment of oil pollution in the area and surrounding towns.
The study found high concentration of hydrocarbon and benzene, two carcinogens, in high concentration in outdoor air and drinking water in Ogoniland.
Some contaminated wells in places like Ogale, Eleme Local Government Area, were found to be contaminated by Benzene at over 900 times above the World Health Organisation guideline. Water samples taken from at least seven wells near the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation pipelines in the town were found to contain Hydrocarbon at least 1000 times above the Nigerian drinking water standard of three micrograms per litre.
The UNEP team examined over 122 kilometres of pipeline, 220 locations and over 5,000 medical records. What it found was shocking. The report stated that in many of the locations, there was contamination of ground water that constituted serious threat to human health and the viability and productivity of the eco-system.
The report stated that the contamination of Ogoniland was so severe that the process of cleaning up the pollution will take up to 30 years. It recommended an initial capital injection of $1 billion to be paid by the Nigerian government and all oil companies to fund the clean-up.
In line with UNEP recommendations, the administration of immediate past president, Goodluck Jonathan, established the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project, HYPREP.
“With the establishment of this project, it is expected that all stakeholders, especially the impacted communities, will cooperate fully with government and grant unfettered access to all impacted sites to ensure complete success,” the petroleum minister at the time, Diezani Alison-Madueke, said.
But after the announcement was made, the project soon fell off the radar as the administration showed no further interest in the report.
HERE COMES BUHARI
Things remained stagnant until August 2015 when the Muhammadu Buhari administration approved actions to fast-track the implementation of the report. Mr. Buhari also announced the donation of $10 million to a newly constituted Board of Trustees of HYPREP for the work on the clean-up to commence.
On June 2, 2016, in an event that rekindled hope across Ogoniland, Mr. Buhari, represented by his deputy, Yemi Osinbajo, was at Bodo to flag-off the clean-up.
“The methodology for the clean-up will ensure job creation for young people. The agro-allied industries required for processing of agricultural produce will also be put in place,” the president said.
But 10 months after the flag-off, not a single drop of oil has been cleaned from Ogoniland.
“Contaminated Area! Please Keep Off!”
Ogoniland is a minefield of environmental disaster and a public health catastrophe. In Ogale, an aide to Godwin Okpabi, paramount ruler of the Eleme, showed PREMIUM TIMES four contaminated boreholes. In each of the boreholes, immediately the taps were turned on, an obnoxious smell similar to a mixture of used engine oil and bad cooking gas pervaded the air.
The nauseating smell was strongest in the water from a borehole at the residence of a community leader, Dadyson Ngawala. He said he spent over N4,000 weekly to buy the water that his household needs.
Erected beside these boreholes were signboards warning residents that the water was not “Fit for Use”. Yet in three of the four boreholes, residents still use the water for bathing and washing.
Even the air in Ogale is poisoned. As this reporter sat chatting within the courtyard of his resident, Mr. Okpabi pointed to the bench on which I sat and said: “After some time if you draw a line with your finger on that bench, your finger will be covered in soot.”
Similar warning signboards were erected besides wells and boreholes in Bomu, Bodo, K-Dere and Goi, all in Gokana Local Government Area. A signboard beside an old jetty in Bodo reads: “Polluted Water! Do not Drink, Fish or Swim here”.
A handful of youth chatting loudly and eating fried pastries were making brisk business carrying people on their backs from canoes across the muddy remains of what was once a mangrove onto the broad concrete slab of the jetty.
One of them urged me to take off my shoes, roll up my jeans and try my feet in the mud. I declined.
“If you enter, oil go full your leg,” he said in Pidgin English.
That was when I noticed their legs, gleaming like they all rubbed petroleum jelly to fight off the dryness of harmattan. Only that it wasn’t petroleum jelly, and harmattan ended months ago. The sheen on their legs were acquired as they walked through the oil drenched mud to carry people onto the jetty.
The air around Bodo jetty was perhaps without doubt the most polluted in all the areas visited in Ogoni. After about 10 minutes of chatting and trying to befriend the youth, I noticed a burning sensation around my nostrils. The sensation soon spread to my throat and my eyes became painful and watery.
As I prepared to talk to the youth, a slightly fair-complexioned, stocky man in his late 30s arrived at the jetty. By the reverence the other youth paid him, he was probably one of their leaders. He was initially friendly and offered me a seat under a mango tree by the jetty. But after I introduced myself and my mission in the community, his countenance changed and his conviviality disappeared.
“I want to talk to someone in authority,” he said. “Do you know who I am? Go and ask of me in Abuja.”
“I am sorry, but if they read this in Abuja and see my name, they won’t believe I spoke to an ordinary journalist. I want to speak to someone in authority. Someone capable of doing, not a journalist that will use my name to write stories,” he said, shaking his head as he stood up from his seat and walked towards the jetty.
After the encounter, other youth declined to talk.
Back in town, Emmanuel Adda-Kobani, a resident, said he rarely sleeps at his house in the town to avoid inhaling the poluted air.
“Anytime I sleep in Bodo, if you wake up early morning and put a finger in your nose it will be stained by black soot. Some nights the pressure will come like a person that has Asthma. We are living by God’s grace,” he said.
At K-Dere, I met a former President of the Movement of the Survival of Ogoni People, MOSOP, Ledum Mitee, as he was driving to pay a condolence visit to his brother-in-law who lost his wife. He asked me to jump into his SUV and offered to take me on a tour of oil spill sites in the village.
One of the sites we visited was an abandoned oil well. More than two decades after oil giant, Royal Dutch Shell, was forced to stop exploration of oil in the area, crude oil was still seeping from the surrounding ground and swamp. The oil company had dug pits around the area to collect the oil and stop it from flowing into surrounding farms and stream. But clearly, the company’s effort was half-hearted and thus futile. The pits have become puddles brimming with crude oil.
Pointing to surrounding vegetation and creek, Mr. Mitee said: “When it rains all these things (crude oil) are washed down to this place and go into the stream. This is a stream some people will drink its water. It flows from all those areas and then goes to Goi. From Goi to the river and that is where the fish comes from. This is one part of it. Like I said, you need a week to do the tour.
“And this goes several feet down. All these places you see raffia palms that is how they got burnt. During the dry season, the oil goes up and it cakes. This place will be like it is cemented.”
He said before the UNEP report shed light on the extent of the devastation of the area, Shell claimed to have cleaned up the area around the oil well.
“What they called clean-up is cover up. If it (oil) flows here they will now hire people to carry sand to pour on it but after a while they cake up. You can perceive the smell. If you stay for a while you become light-headed.”
The paramount ruler of Biara, Barisi Kpaama, also complained about Shell’s shoddy clean-up in his community. He accused the oil giant of digging up sand to cover oil spills.
While reiterating the company’s commitment to the implementation of the UNEP report, a spokesperson for Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited, the Nigerian subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, Bamidele Odugbesan, said it has carried out remediation of 15 of its sites mentioned in the report.
“Those sites have been remediated and certified by government regulators,” he said in an email.
“Contractors have been re-trained on clean-up and remediation techniques and SPDC has assigned specialist supervisors to a number of project sites to ensure effective oversight and compliance.”
Mr. Odugbesan added that the remediation techniques it used were in line with “industry best practices.”
He also said that SPDC has also provided safe drinking water in some of the impacted communities.
He suggested that some of the spills in the area are due to oil theft and illegal refining of crude.
“In addition to the above, SPDC, as operator of the SPDC JV, continues to implement several initiatives to prevent and minimise the impact of crude oil theft and illegal refining in Ogoniland and other parts of the Niger Delta where it operates.”
Residents, however, disagree with the oil firm.
Mr. Kpaama, the traditional ruler, said the pollution in his community has resulted in dire environmental and health problems.
“We have underground water pollution, we have air pollution, there are certain food or crops that have gone to extinction as a result of the pollution. There is a species of cocoyam that is not available to us again. There is low yield of our farm produce.
“Health-wise, there are associated ailments of air pollution that are common in the whole of Ogoniland, especially in Biara. Skin diseases, eye problems are becoming so high and these are ailments associated to air-population,” he said.
About two kilometres from K-Dere, lies Goi. Goi is one of the more painful cases of the tragedy of oil spills in Ogoniland. Despite not having an oil installation, the community is so polluted by oil that it is considered uninhabitable for humans. Its landscape is dotted by deserted farms and houses.
Outside a dilapidated farmhouse, which also used to be a bakery, stood an imposing signboard erected by the Federal Ministry of Petroleum.
The sign reads: “Prohibition! Contaminated Area. Please Keep Off.”
But just after the signboard, a group of children were bathing in the river. As I moved closer to them, I saw thick films of oil pushed to the edge of the water by the ripples created as they swam.
A fisherman was disembarking from his canoe with his catch for the day – small tilapias barely bigger than fingerlings – in a plastic bag.
“Look how tiny the fishes are. This is the effect of the pollution. There are no big fishes around and fishermen have to travel further down the river to make a catch. I bet you if you open up these fish you will see oil in them. That is what my people are eating because they have no choice,” said Eric Dooh, the owner of a cluster of fish ponds surrounding the river.
In 2012, Mr. Dooh, alongside three other villagers from Goi, dragged Shell to a court in The Hague. They accused the oil major of polluting their farms and waterways in the community.
Shell said the spill was caused by sabotage. The case is still in court.
“This is my community,”Mr. Dooh told PREMIUM TIMES. “I was asked to pull out of this community unless I want to die. They didn’t tell me where to go or what will be given to me. No relief materials. I pulled out of this place; all my investments have been polluted. Look at my fish ponds, they are no longer functional.”
He explained that the pollution in Goi is particularly ominous due to the topography of the village.
“There is no oil installation in Goi but the trans-Niger pipeline that carry crude from the upland to the export terminal at Bonny passes through part of Goi land to Bonny. If you look behind you, this creek goes to Bodo West (oil field), in the east is the Bomu oil field and the height of this side (points toward Bomu) is higher than this area where we are.
“The moment there is pollution in Bomu oil field it flows downward into the stream that links Goi and carries the crude into our source of drinking water and into our swarms. When there is pollution in Bodo West, the high tide carries the crude into Goi. Goi is like a basin where all the debris from Bomu Oil field and Bodo West settle,” he said.
“GOVERNMENT DECEIVED US”
The overflow of hope expressed across Ogoniland after the flag-off has since disappeared. When I visited the region in April, the prevailing emotions in the region were disappointment and anger.
“I witnessed the flag-off. I was there at the launch and since then till today nothing practical, no step taken has been made known to the Ogoni people publicly.
“I am saying nothing has been done. We are seeing the flag-off as a deception by the presidency,” Mr. Kpaama said.
He warned that tension was simmering underneath in the community and would soon explode if the government does not hasten up with the clean-up.
“We are sitting on a keg of gun-powder,” he warned.
“We are living by the mercy of God and ignorance is killing us. If not we would have demonstrated to the federal government to tell them that you are liars.
“People are still drinking the same water. Ordinarily, by the extent of the pollution done to Ogoniland and by the UNEP report, even our crops are contaminated. So, it is an indirect way to send Ogoni to extinction.”
Mr. Mitee said the flag-off was merely a hype staged by the administration to score some cheap political points.
“You have been here, you have seen for yourself. There was so much hype and it has a fantastic public relations benefit to the government. When I go to certain places people ask me saying ‘congratulations! they have started cleaning your place’. You have seen the place, is there anything about Clean-up going on?”, he asked rhetorically.
Apart from recommending a clean-up of the polluted Ogoni environment, UNEP recommended some measures to be undertaken urgently prior to the clean-up. These include the provision of alternative drinking water for those whose sources of drinking water have been contaminated by hydrocarbon.
The UNEP report also recommended that “everyone who has consumed water from contaminated sources should be requested to undertake a comprehensive medical examination by physicians knowledgeable about the possible adverse health effects of the hydrocarbons detected.”
But there was no sign of any of these measures being put in place, except for the erection of signboards warning people to stay off contaminated areas and boreholes.
Despite these signs, in the absence of an alternative, people still fetch water from the boreholes. Kids were seen swimming in contaminated rivers with thick film of oil.
At Kpea, a small oil-producing town outside Bori, in Khana Local Government Area, a huge water plant residents said was built by oil companies about 10 years ago stood imposingly useless in the centre of town.
Ken Nnaa, the legal adviser of the National Youth Council of Ogoni People, who took me on a tour of the town said the only time water flowed from the four rusting taps was on the day the water plant was inaugurated.
A hospital also said to have been built by oil companies was in near ruins. Most of its ceiling have caved in. Bushes have encroached unto its red brick walls and the large space in front of the building has been converted into a farmland.
Mr. Nnaa said the hospital has not treated a patient since it was built.
“When they talk about emergency measures, these are the facilities that they should have renovated to provide water for our people and to carry out the medical tests and treatment recommended in the UNEP report,” he said.
Most of the health centres in Ogoniland look old, empty and in various states of disrepair. However, the River State government operated hospital in Bodo has recently been renovated. The white paint on the walls of the building looks fresh and its premises seems well-kept. Residents were full of praises for Nyesom Wike, the state governor for renovating the facility.
Mr. Mitee said government should act with the urgency stipulated in the UNEP report and start implementing some of the emergency measures.
“If you look at the UNEP report, there are certain measures they said are fundamental; urgent. One of which is that you need to find alternative drinking water for people who are drinking the water that is almost life-threatening. You need to decommission some of those of the oil installations because they were not properly decommissioned when they left,” Mr. Mitee said.
“You also have people whose livelihood have been distorted. You need to do something about it. To turn the faces of the youth from the illegal refinery as they call it, something sustainable. None of these have been done. People are still drinking the water that is 1000 times contaminated,” Mr. Mitee said.
Charles Tenalo, the paramount ruler of nearby Bomu, another village in Gokana, whose mangrove forests have been devastated by oil spill, expressed regrets at the inaction of government. He said as the government drags its feet, the health of members of the community continue to deteriorate, causing deaths.
“I am very surprised and I am not feeling fine at all because the more we live in the spill, drinking the polluted water, breathing the polluted air, without any clean-up, when all these things are piled in our system, it was responsible for some of the death we are having. We may not know. I feel bad that it has not been done. We were expecting that by now the clean-up would have started,” he said.
Residents said since after the flag-off, they have been kept in the dark as to when the clean-up was to begin or when they will start seeing the emergency measures in their communities.
“The government has not said anything to the community after the flag-off; None,” said Mr. Tenalo.
“They have set up HYPREP but I don’t even know them. We have not felt their impact. We have not seen HYPREP. Telling us they are HYPREP or telling us their functions. They are supposed to notify and invite us the chiefs from the core areas where the spill was serious.
“Nothing has been done. They have not called us for any meeting saying this is what we are going to do,” he added.
Mr. Kpaama reiterated the views of his colleague from neighbouring Bomu. He said members of his community had been left in the dark as when the emergency measures and clean-up would start.
“The only meeting I attended in the Palace of the King of Ogoni is the day before the launch. So, I am saying that the entire process is a junk process,” he said.
After waiting over 10 months for the Buhari administration to commence the clean-up it announced with fanfare, Ogoni people now say the flag-off was a political charade the government used for public relations.
Several residents PREMIUM TIMES spoke to accused some politicians of the ruling All Progressives Congress of treating the proposed clean-up like a trophy and excluding key grassroots individuals from the process.
“The danger is the politicisation of what is going on,” Mr. Mitee said. “They now project the thing to the local people and if you ask any local person here, they will tell you we are going to get jobs, they will give us money, there will be contracts… so they have projected the thing to local people as something different from what I think the whole idea of clean-up is.”
Mr. Adda-Kobani argued that if the government was sincere about the clean-up and not out to score political points with the plight of the Ogoni people, work should have preceded the official flag-off.
Another resident, Christian Kpandei, standing a few feet from the commemorative stone of the flag-off in Bodo, was visibly angry, saying the government’s promise to clean-up Ogoniland was a mere charade.
“The federal government was fooling people of Bodo by telling us they are going to do clean-up and after 10 months nothing has happened. You can see the creeks, you cannot see any clean-up? Only what we hear is clean-up is happening in Bodo. Where is the clean-up? They are just fooling the people of Bodo,” he said.
Two months after the government did next to nothing about the clean-up it had flagged-off with much publicity, President Buhari eventually named a Board of Trustees (BoT) and governing council for HYPREP.
The BoT is chaired by a former Lagos State Commissioner of Finance, Wale Edun, and the governing council is chaired by a former minister of environment and now UN deputy secretary general, Amina Mohammed.
After this announcement, things went to almost complete halt for another four months until December when Marvin Dekhil was appointed the co-ordinator of HYPREP.
In February, Mrs. Mohammed held a ground-breaking ceremony for the launch of an Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Centre in Bori, Khana Local Government Area. The centre, one of the recommendations of the UNEP report, will employ hundreds of people and is expected to be the hub of the soil treatment efforts, she said.
A visit to the site of the centre in April showed that elephant grass, the height of a commemorative stone erected after the ground-breaking ceremony, was growing on the land. No single brick has been erected on the land since then.
The Rivers State Commissioner for Environment, Roselyn Konya, who is also a member of the governing council of HYPREP, could not hide her frustration at the near stagnation of activities related to the clean-up on a visit to her office in Port Harcourt.
“What we discovered is that when there is step forward everything stops and then we wait,” she said.
“The clean-up itself has not started. Preliminaries, that was what we thought should be completed by now but it is not so. It is rather too slow. The way they came in banging on June 2, 2016 I thought by now we would have gone very far. But it is not so,” she continued.
Ms. Konya said the Rivers State government had supported the clean-up effort. For instance, she said, the state government provided the land for the proposed construction of the Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Centre.
Five years after HYPREP was established, the agency does not have an office of its own. Before travelling to Ogoniland in April, in a brief chat with Mr. Dekhil over the phone, the HYREP coordinator said he could not say much about the clean-up as he had just resumed and was still trying to set up office in Port Harcourt.
A few days later, Mr. Dekhil told me during another telephone chat that he has drawn up a work plan for the clean-up. He said he was about to present the work plan to the governing council in a meeting tentatively scheduled for May.
On May 16, 2017, the BOT eventually met in Port Harcourt. When asked about the decisions reached at the meeting, Mr. Dekhil promised he would have a telephone chat with this reporter the next day. However, he did not respond to subsequent phone calls and an sms reminding him of his promise.
While speaking on the work plan before the BOT meeting, Mr. Dekhil admitted the clean-up had not started, saying the pollution in Ogoniland required a lot of planning and the process should not be rushed.
“The work plan is an indication, it is a document that expresses the work we want to do going forward against what you are assuming that we have started. That is why you are going to the community to ask what we have started.
“No. we are in the process of getting started. I only got handed over the office couple of weeks back. First thing we have to do is to set up a functional office. A lot of thing are going to depend on us getting a functional office. We will then implement what is in the work plan. If you go to the community I don’t think they are going to tell you much,” he said.
He said in the months after the flag-off, the government did not just fold its arms doing nothing. He explained that a lot of work like setting up the organs to manage the clean-up was put in place. He argued that it was not correct to say nothing had been done in 10 months when he only resumed office less than a month ago.
“We are going to be realistic about our expectations. When you begin to talk about 10 months, 10 months is not the fact. Like I said, we only got to office three weeks ago.”
When asked if this reporter could peruse a copy of his work plan, Mr. Dekhil declined. He said the document was still a work-in-progress and not a public document yet as HYPREP’s governing council had not approved it.
He also said that soil testing that should precede the clean-up proper is ongoing.
Though PREMIUM TIMES did not see anyone testing the soil in all of the places visited during a visit to Ogoni, some days after this reporter left the area, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Environment, Esther Agbarakwe, posted some pictures of people purportedly testing the soil in Ogoniland on her Twitter handle.
While admitting that the process could have moved faster, Mr. Okpabi, who is also a member of the governing council, said government should be praised for implementing the report after it was neglected by the last administration for five years.
“I will give it to this government, I believe that they have done well. Taking into consideration that this report we are referring to has been on the table of the federal government since 2011 and near to nothing was done.
“Yes, it is slow but positive things are being arranged here,” he said.
When asked when he thinks the clean-up will start, Mr. Okpabi said soon.
When pressed for a more exact date, he said as a member of the governing council, his mandate was to provide the plan of HYPREP but he was not involved in the day-to-day management of the agency and that only the co-ordinator could give me the date I sought.
Celestine Akpobari, the national coordinator, Ogoni Solidarity Forum and a member of the presidential team that organised the flag-off, said a team is already on ground assessing the various water plants in Ogoniland with a view to providing clean sources of water. He said before the end of May, some of the emergency measures would be provided.
While reiterating the Nigerian government’s commitment to cleaning up Ogoniland, Ibrahim Jibrin, Minister of State for Environment, told PREMIUM TIMES during a telephone chat that the government was taking its time to get everything right and would not be stampeded into doing a shoddy job.
He said a team was already on ground in Ogoniland doing trial tests of the remediation exercise and wondered why people are saying nothing has been done.
“Whoever said there is a delay does not understand the technical nature of the operation in the first place.
“The Federal government took up the challenge during Obasanjo and got UNEP to do a study which they did and submitted their report in 2011. And in 2012, the federal government then set up HYPREP. Nobody seems to be asking questions of what really happened between 2012 and 2015 when we took over. All this period nothing happened. But nobody is talking about that failure”, Mr. Jibrin said.
“We in the Federal Ministry of Environment are not in a hurry to fail and the very easy way to fail is not to prepare very well. The only thing we made clear that this is not a project of sharing money to individuals. And I am sure there are those who are interested in that and are not happy because we are not playing that game.
“People want us to work for them, they should exercise patience and wait for us to put the proper machinery in place. Once we start, there will be no looking back,” he added.
But the minister’s call for patience clearly did not resonate with UNEP.
“This is one of the biggest environmental catastrophes anywhere in the world, and it’s essential that we see rapid progress on getting this clean-up underway,” the Executive Director of UN Environment, Erik Solheim, said in an email response to questions about the delay in the clean-up exercise.
Similarly, Mr. Mitee said the government did not need the elaborate planning to provide some of the emergency measures. He said this was a life and death matter.
“Okay, if you are not talking to us, why can’t you provide water? They say this water we are drinking is bad for our health. We cannot swim, we should not even fish, then where are we going to fish? And these are urgent things to be done and years after it is not being done. What you are doing is to put hot water in a container and continue boiling it because after a while, it will burst.
“They are setting the stage for serious conflict in this area. I have been involved in the Ogoni thing and I can smell what can cause trouble long ahead. And that’s why I’m speaking about it now because I see the potential of conflict, especially as we are marching towards another election,” he said.
This article is a product of a partnership between PREMIUM TIMES and #Buharimeter to fact-check the announced clean-up of Ogoniland.
#Buharimeter is an initiative of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) with support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) and the Department for International Department (DFID).